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Behaalotcha 5784     | Kate Rozansky

06/24/2024 01:59:07 PM


The Talmud at the Tonys

Last Sunday night, I was watching the Tony awards - because in every rabbinical student there is a former theater kid just bursting to break free. To my surprise, one of the winners, in her acceptance speech, name-checked the Talmud and quoted Pirke Avot. I found this delightful. But I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Talmud at the Tonys - because the Jewish world and the world of theater interact all the time. And not just on the Upper West Side (or if you’re me, in multiple summers of Musical Theater Summer camp). 

All of us, just now participated in what  one could justly call, “an immersive musical theater experience.” Removing the Torah from the ark, reading from it, and returning it to the Ark is a highly dramatic ritual. There’s singing, there’s choreography, there’s extravagant hand gestures. The Torah service we know today largely developed somewhere in Early Medieval Ashkenaz. As Professor Ruth Langer notes, the Torah Service constitutes a kind of play-within-a-play in the larger drama of the Shabbat Morning service. I will summarize her account, with some variation, as they say, for dramatic effect:  

The curtain rises, and we collectively sing a pasuk from this week’s parsha:

 ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה קומה  יהוה ויפצו איביך וינסו משנאיך מפניך 

In this play, the congregation acts the part of Bnei Israel in the Wilderness, recent witnesses to revelation, traveling and walking under the shelter of the Divine Presence (Vayehi Binsoa). As we bring the Torah to rest on the bima, we symbolically build the Beit HaMikdash, singing “Lecha Hashem haGedulah.” This pasuk comes from a section in Divrei HaYamim where David names Solomon as the one who will build the Temple. Next,  “Romemu,” which comes from Psalm 99, celebrates God as Enthroned in a Completed Temple. The Torah reading represents the First Beit HaMikdash and the Haftarah reading the Second.  But this immanence cannot last.  When we put the Torah back, we  invoke the destruction of the Temple by singing a pasuk from Eicha:  Hasheiveinu Hashem Elecha Ve’Nashuva.  Close curtain - And scene.

If this play were only a play, it would be a tragedy. There would be something painfully Sisyphean about  this - every week we receive the Torah in ecstasy and every week we lose it in grief. Now that I have seen the Torah service this way, I don’t know how to unsee it - and if this was all it was, I might come to find it unbearable. 

But the Torah service  isn’t merely a backward-looking re-enactment. The pasuk we sing as the Torah leaves us every week is from Eicha, but it is the end of Eicha, which does express the hope that God’s presence will return to Jerusalem. Shift the kaleidoscope and we are not  only losing the Torah when we put it away - we are also welcoming a returned Divine Presence back, reinstalling it in a rebuilt Holy of Holies. Chadesh Yameinu Ki Kedem.  Like all of Jewish ritual, the performance is not just performance, but preparation. Every Shabbat, we hold a dress rehearsal for a more Redeemed present. 

The word “performative” is often used as an insult.  I don’t want performative acts of friendship - I want real friendship. And I certainly don’t want performative Judaism. But I want to speak out here in defense of some of the more “performative” parts of Jewish ritual.  Sometimes, as a part of my internship, I’m responsible for handing out kibudim to women in the community, including a new one - one that weren’t used to doing here - the honor of “escorting the Sefer Torah,” otherwise known as, “walking behind the woman carrying the Sefer Torah.”  Initially, I got some questions about this practice. I mean, isn’t this kind of a “fake honor”? 

I have good news and bad news. The good news: walking behind the Sefer Torah is neither fake nor is it “only”  a kibud. It’s mitzvah, which also happens to be a kibud.  When we follow the Sefer Torah, we’re treating the Sefer Torah like a monarch, who never travels without an escort. Technically, the Rema says that everyone whom the Torah scroll passes should follow and escort the Sefer Torah until it reaches the Aron. But that would get crowded - and so we designate one person, kind of as our communal shaliach. When we do this, we’re embodying a principle expressed in the Yerushalmi – we follow the Torah, the Torah doesn’t follow us.  

The bad news is that all kibudim are fake, because kavod - because honor in general is such a flexible, intangible, ever-shifting concept. And yet - when  a community member tells me she doesn’t want to accept a “fake honor,” she’s expressing a concern that is deeply rooted Jewish tradition. Chazzal are full of anxiety about the problem of authenticity, about determining the difference between a symbolic act versus a real act, a “mitzvah” versus a mitzvah. Rabbinic Judaism asserts that the “real” korbanot can be replaced by Torah study and prayer. But without the blood and guts validation of the Beit HaMikdash, we waiver in our confidence.   

This is why we have so many rituals that layer many different kinds of “performance” over one another - as if we hope one of them will stick. When we sell our chametz, we do eight different kinds of kinyan - with a contract, with a handshake, with movable property, with money - to make sure that we do not “own” the chametz in our homes during Pesach. Kiddushin  (another kind of kinyan) contains elements of this as well - we don’t actually know precisely what aspect of the chuppah formalizes the marriage, so we do several different things, to make sure the marriage is accomplished. 

I think today, partly because of our modern bias towards naturalness and authenticity, we might believe that pointing out that something that we do is ceremonial, rather than halachic, is a way of denegrating the action, or those who participate in and take meaning from it. Here I confess that I have strayed into this space…quite often. But it seems I must rethink this. 

The drama of the Torah service isn’t strictly speaking a halakhic event. But I would bet it is as deeply ingrained in your Jewish life as many things that are, and that depriving ourselves of this performance would impoverish our religious lives. These constructed rituals, like the Torah service, even when not fulfilling a specific halachic obligation, educate us about who we are, as a community, and as individuals, in ways that shape our real lives, and our “real” shemirat mitzvot.  We could take the Torah out and put it back with half as much theater, and still fulfill the mitzvah with halachic integrity.  But our religious and spiritual lives are not built only on halachic integrity. 

The civic spectacle and constructed liturgy of the Torah Service, to quote Langer, “transforms the Torah reading from a simple act of proclamation and study into an event that takes place in sacred time,” where “Those participating in the synagogue’s Torah service…[are meant to] experience the nearness to God that characterized the points in Jewish history,” dramatized in the Torah service. Not bad for a little bit of Saturday morning community theater. 

Shakespeare’s Chorus, in the prologue to the history play Henry V, wishes for a “muse of fire,” a “kingdom for a stage,” and for the ghost of King Henry himself,  to “play” the lead role in the production. I think the Sages who instituted these rituals would have identified with that wish. The Torah Service, no matter how lushly imagined, is a very poor a substitute for what it pretends to be. 

When Henry V’s ghost does not arrive to star in the show, the Chorus asks the audience to collude with him in a moment of collective creation:  “let us ciphers…On your imaginary forces work/ Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them…for tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings.” If the ceremony is going to work, we have to know what play we’re in. 

To walk behind the Sefer Torah is to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors who witnessed the fire and the earthquake at the foot of the mountain. And while we dramatize it in the Torah service, we are, in fact, always walking in those footsteps, all the time, whether we realize it or not. It is a burden and an honor and it’s definitely something that deserves a bracha at the end of every day. None of this is really a ma’ase - an act. It’s mitziyus- reality. The boundary-line between a  “real” kibud and a “fake” one, a “constructed” religious experience and  a genuine spiritual event is much more porous than it initially appears. Performance is preparation. We “mind…true things, by what their mockeries be.”



Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784